Secrets of the Modern Repo Man

High-tech gizmos make it easier and safer to snag the cars of delinquent borrowers.

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Tough times have meant boom times for one not-so-obvious line of work: the repossession business. These days, repo men are enjoying a surge in demand as lenders are seeing more bad loans and want to snag the cars of owners who have missed their payments. Last year alone, lenders took back more than 1.6 million autos, a jump of 12 percent over 2007. And increasingly, technology is helping in the hunt.

"Repossession agents," or "recovery field agents," have come a long way from the macho image projected in the 1984 movie Repo Man. A wizened veteran in that cult flick famously tells a newbie: "An ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. Repo man spends his life getting into tense situations." (Watch the classic film Repo Man instantly through Amazon's video-on-demand.)

Modern repo men try to avoid nasty conflicts with high-tech tools. They search for their targets in the dark of night with gear that scans license plates. Tow trucks have also been upgraded. Now, agents can haul tightly parked cars without ever leaving the cab of the tow truck. Some dealers can even track and disable a car from afar, making it easy to bring back to the lot.

If you're late on your payments, here are a few high-tech tools that might bring a repo man to your car: 

Jerr-Dann Element. Car and Driver magazine called this marvel of modern hoisting "the most awesome tool since the invention of the Slim Jim." Once the device is backed up to a car, an operator armed with a remote control can nab the target in eight seconds in the comfort of the front seat. The Element's boom and wheel lift combine engineering smarts with simple physics. After the driver backs the lift's arm against the front of a car's front tire, the arm pivots around to find the other front tire. Two more metal arms slide out to find the back of the front tires, locking them for a quick tow. A promotional video from Jerr-Dan shows how an operator can even grab a tightly parked car from the side. The lift also levels itself and can tilt for a car that's parked on a hill. "This means you make more picks in multiple situations, and that gives you a competitive edge," Jerr-Dan says. Figure about $55,000 for a truck and Element system.

PlateScan. In systems from PlateScan and competitors, one to four cameras mounted on a moving vehicle can quickly scan the license plates of parked and moving cars. The system picks out the plate number and runs it against a database in a laptop, promptly signaling hits. While police use PlateScan to find stolen and wanted vehicles, repo men use them to find cars with defaulted loans. Smart repo firms mount the cameras on cars that can roam more cheaply than a truck, then block in a target and call for a tow. Cameras with color sensors are good for spotting the printed plates that some states use, and cameras with infrared sensors can scan numbers after dark. PlateScan systems start at $4,500, but a more robust system with multiple cameras can exceed $20,000.

[Infrared is getting cheaper these days as illustrated by $60 night-vision goggles.]

SmartTrack. Rocky Mountain Tracking is among the many sellers of GPS tracking devices that pitch them to auto dealers, offering what the company calls "no-fuss car repossession." The $200 device slips unobtrusively under a dash and uses GPS satellites to pinpoint its location. Dealers need only pay a few dollars more to get the location data if and when a borrower defaults on a loan. For $100 or so more, dealers can install a model that can also disable the car's ignition.

[Read how GPS can also be a driver's friend by saving time and money.]

PayTeck Smart Box. Devices from PayTeck, OnTime, and other brands take remote ignition disabling a step further. Designed specifically for subprime auto dealers, the devices add a keypad on which the borrower can punch a code to keep the car moving. Dealers install the monitoring box which starts to chirp with an audible warning when payment is due. Dealers say the devices help subprime borrowers to remember their due dates, which are typically come every two weeks. If payment isn't made and a code is punched in, the car's ignition is disabled. In a humane touch, dealers typically program the devices to cut off starters in the early morning hours, when they're less likely to leave someone stranded away from home. Prices start around $200.

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